Chorus of praise from Obama, others for Jason Collins shows times, they are a changin’

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Six years ago retired NBA player John Amaechi came out and announced he was gay after a four-teams-in-five-years NBA career. The reaction was decidedly mixed within the basketball community. What we all remember most was Tim Hardaway saying, “I hate gay people” (a stance he has since recanted).

There was a smattering of hate when Jason Collins came out as a gay man on Monday, but the tone was largely different — like polls have shown America’s attitude has shifted on the issue of gay and lesbian rights, the attitude of the NBA community has shifted. Collins spoke with Amaechi before making his announcement, but the reaction — including some very thoughtful journalism — is the sign of the steps we as a nation are taking toward acceptance, particularly among younger generations. And NBA is a young man’s game. There are many more steps to take, but some have been clearly taken.

In a sign of that, a number of players — including Kobe Bryant, a guy once fined for using a gay slur on the court — quickly came to Collins’ support. Then there was the call Collins got from President Barack Obama.

Hours after Collins disclosed his sexuality in an online article, Obama reached out by phone, expressing his support and telling Collins he was impressed by his courage, the White House said.

In the past couple years I was in an NBA locker room pregame (along with another reporter) speaking casually with guys getting ready for warm-ups when the topic of having a gay teammate came up (no, I’m not naming the players in an off-the-record conversation). One player said he would uncomfortable with an openly gay teammate. But the guy at the next locker looked up and piped in with a question “Can the guy play?” And among younger players that seems to be the focus — if he can contribute they don’t care what he does off the court. NBA players are protective of their privacy and are willing to extend that courtesy to others.

There has been a reaction from some that “is this a big deal?” But it is because unlike going into law or medicine or insurance sales, the professional team sport locker room was one last inhospitable work environment for gays.

Collins has helped changed that. You can bet there are other gay athletes right now in other American team sports who feel empowered by what Collins did. Amaechi told the AP that younger gay athletes also saw what Collins did and it gave them hope.

“I’m getting tons of messages right now from people talking to me about him, about what he’s done,” Amaechi told The Associated Press. “I’ve spoken to a couple of college athletes in the States and a couple of high school athletes who are very good who have been immensely buoyed by this news. They feel a weight lifted off them even if they aren’t out and they aren’t going to come out at this point.”

It’s another step in the march we as a nation are taking on the issue. Not everyone is going to come along but the path the nation is on with this issue is pretty clear. (Why do you think so many career politicians are changing their views on this? Self-preservation is a strong political instinct.)

Collins has taken a bold step. But the tone of the reactions just six years later shows how many steps we have already taken on this issue.

Bulls’ Kris Dunn shoves Russell Westbrook, scuffle breaks out (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook has a way of getting under an opponent’s skin.

Monday night it was the Bulls’ Kris Dunn‘s turn.

While moving over in position on the strong side, Westbrook and Dunn made contact, and after the whistle blew for a foul (with the ball handler), Westbrook made a grand gesture of pushing Dunn off him. Dunn responded with an outsized shove. And then it was on.

There’s more stuff to break down here than the Zapruder film.

• Jeremi Grant of the Thunder came in and tried to go at Dunn a little, in front of Westbrook (protect the star).

Bobby Portis tried to slide Grant out of the way, but…

Robin Lopez came in and went at Grant getting in his face, so Grant basically throws Lopez into the first row.

• Which just made Lopez even madder, leading to a meme-worthy angry face.

• Bulls’ coach Jim Boylen gets Grant in a headlock and pulls him out of the situation.

Steven Adams calmly makes sure Portis is out of the picture, then walks back over to Lopez and then Adams and Lopez get separated.

• In the end, the officials handed out for technicals: Westbrook, Dunn, Grant, and Lopez.

A few minutes later, Lopez blocked a Grant shot, decided to taunt him, and that got Lopez a second technical and he was tossed (Lopez is a veteran, he has to know the officials are going to call everything tight at that point). Watch Adams pat Lopez on the back as the Bulls’ big man makes the walk to the locker room.

James Harden scores 47, including sinking dagger into Jazz (VIDEO)

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Utah and Houston met in a battle of the disappointing early season Western teams — predicted by most to finish 2/3 in the West, they came into the night 10th and 13th — and in the tight West these kinds of games matter.

So James Harden turned it up a notch.

The reigning MVP looked every bit that guys scoring 47 points and adding six rebounds, five assists, and five steals in what was a Houston win, 102-97. It was Harden that sank the dagger into Utah.

That’s four wins in a row for Houston as they try to climb out of the hole they dug themselves early this season.

Taj Gibson helps defend drive with one shoe on, one shoe in his hand (VIDEO)

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In the first quarter Monday night, Timberwolves veteran Taj Gibson was working in the post on the Kings’ Nemanja Bjelica, Gibson got the bucket but lost his shoe.

He picked it up, ran to the other end with one shoe in hand, and then defended a Bjelica drive well enough that Karl-Anthony Towns would come over and get the block on the play.

Somehow, Tom Thibodeau is going to get credit for this new defensive style.

Thunder reportedly pick up final option year on coach Billy Donovan’s contract

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At 18-10 to start the season, the Thunder went into Monday night’s action in third place in the tight Western Conference, pulled there by the best defense in the NBA and enough offense from Russell Westbrook and Paul Gorge to get by.

That the team is doing this with a thin roster, and by putting some role players in strong positions to succeed, and by playing so cohesively has guaranteed coach Billy Donovan one more year as coach, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Donovan has done well to help the Thunder find a new, winning identity after Kevin Durant left a few years back.

Next season (2019-20) will be the final one on Donovan’s contract. Teams often extend a coach before that, feeling that a “lame duck” coach may have trouble getting some players to fall in line (or the team will struggle recruit free agents, because a good player with options doesn’t want to walk into uncertainty). It will be interesting to see how the Thunder handle that.